Robinson and Pert - black and white - training
Bob Frid/Vancouver Whitecaps FC

Five storylines to watch this preseason

VANCOUVER, BC – Wales, here we come.

Vancouver Whitecaps FC officially kick off their 2017 preseason this week with training sessions at UBC before heading to the United Kingdom on Monday night for an 11-day training camp.

Here are some storylines to watch this preseason.

NEW CHALLENGE

This will be Vancouver’s first-ever preseason trip to the UK since joining Major League Soccer.

And it’s designed specifically to shake things up and whip the team into high gear heading into the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals vs. New York Red Bulls. No longer will Whitecaps FC be competing against fellow MLS sides starting their preseason in sunny Tucson.

Instead, they will roll up their sleeves and face English Football League clubs Bristol City FC, Cardiff City FC and Oxford United FC, who should be in midseason form.  

How will the ‘Caps stack up?

FRESH BLOOD AT RIGHT BACK

Right back is one position that got a complete overhaul this offseason.

Fraser Aird and Jordan Smith, who were on loan last season, have moved on – and Sheanon Williams and Jakob Nerwinski are ready to take over. Williams is the more experienced of the two, having appeared in 192 matches across all competitions during his seven seasons in MLS. But Carl Robinson also said that he believes Nerwinski, Vancouver’s first-round selection in this month’s MLS SuperDraft, is “ready to play now.”

How ready? We’re about to find out.

Together, the hope is that Williams and Nerwinski can help shore up the ‘Caps back line after a year in which Whitecaps FC conceded the second most goals in the Western Conference.

YOUTH MOVEMENT?

A year ago, then 15-year-old Alphonso Davies turned heads in the preseason, earning himself a pro contract with WFC2 and eventually an MLS contract. Well, the exciting youngster from Edmonton is a year older now – and he has eight MLS games under his belt to boot.

Will he push for a place in Robinson’s starting lineup? He’ll certainly be given the opportunity.

And who else might step up this time around?

Marco Bustos, who enjoyed some success with the Canadian senior men’s national team over the offseason, should be more motivated than ever – as should centre back Christian Dean, who is healthy once again after missing the whole of last year due to injury.

There are also three WFC2 players in camp: centre back Sem de Wit and midfielders Thomas Gardner and the recently-signed David Norman Jr. Robinson has shown that he’s more than willing to push WFC2 players onto the first team, as was most recently the case with striker Kyle Greig and goalkeeper Spencer Richey, if they deserve the opportunity.

But they have to earn it first. And that starts today.

Injury note: WFC2 goalkeeper Sean Melvin was scheduled to join the team in Wales but picked up a hamstring strain injury in Canada's 4-2 win over Bermuda on Sunday and will now return to Vancouver for further evaluation.

NUMBER NINE

Who will lead the line for Whitecaps FC come opening day?

That, in the eyes of many supporters, will be one of the biggest storylines to watch this preseason. Will it be someone on the existing roster – a Giles Barnes perhaps? Or will it be a new acquisition?

Either way, it’s possible that someone like Kekuta Manneh, who has returned to full health after last year’s foot injury, or Yordy Reyna, a crafty Peruvian attacking midfielder/forward who the ‘Caps acquired today, could feature up top in a two-striker formation as well.

Speaking of formations…

FORMATIONS, FORMATIONS, FORMATIONS

Here’s one for my fellow soccer nerds.

One thing I love about the preseason is that it gives teams the opportunity to experiment with different shapes and formations heading into the season. It will be interesting to see how much Robinson actually decides to do that with the Champions League quarterfinal now less than a month away.

On the one hand, he’ll want to establish his system and get everyone singing from the same song sheet. On the other, if there’s ever time to try out different things, it’s the preseason.

Like most teams in MLS, including last year’s MLS Cup winners, the ‘Caps have primarily lined up in a 4-2-3-1 during the Robinson era. That being said, he has also fielded a few different variations of the 4-4-2, which might be an option again with the acquisition of Reyna.

Either way, it will be an interesting storyline to follow.